"They're costing millions in taxpayer money. Why should I have to pay because some fat slob is too lazy to get off the couch and take care of themself? They're killing the NHS!"
I took a deep breath and locked eyes with my friend across the aisle. The man behind us on the train had been ranting for nearly 10 minutes, and my patience was waning. I shook my head in a silent "I’m about to lose my shit." My friend nodded back as if to say, "I know," his cheeks flushing red.
We were using what I call "stigma shorthand" — a silent language of winks and nods used by the hyper-vigilant to keep each other safe.
"I might have to say something." I finally said out loud. He nodded again. I took another deep breath and thought about whether or not I could live with myself if I didn't.
"They’re irresponsible! They're just like drunks!" the man behind us said loudly. "They should be fined!"
Right. That was it. My partner, who up until this point had been blissfully consumed with her Tuna Nicoise, startled a bit as I rose to look behind me.
What I’d meant to say was: "Hi! I'm a real live fat person. You maybe have never met one before in real life? I'm just assuming that 'cause no one would ever say the things you’re saying about someone they actually cared about. But just so you know, I’m up here in front of you being an actual human being, so if you can't stop yourself being hateful, maybe you could at least have the courtesy to do it elsewhere?"
Except I only got as far as, "Hi! I'm a real live fat person," before I realized that the bearded bully in the blue sweater behind me knew exactly who was sitting in front of him — and he was ready for me. Before I could get out another word, he tilted his head, slumped his shoulders in a resigned sigh, and thrust an interrupting hand toward my face.
"Okay," he said (the "let's DO this, Tubby!" subtly implied), "I'm just saying, my wife" —he motioned to the mute but surly looking blonde next to him — "is a nurse, my son is studying to become a doctor. You have to admit that everything I'm saying is based in fact."
I was thrown. I'd naively assumed that basic human decency would kick in once he realized an actual person of the variety he was maligning was within earshot. In my imagination, he'd looked surprised, mumbled an awkward apology, and that had been that. But that was totally not that.
Mr. Smug was all worked up in a self-righteous lather and he was spoiling for a logic-based fight about fiscal responsibility and the "obesity epidemic." All I wanted was to enjoy my day trip without listening to someone endlessly hate-wank about my right to live. And his complete lack of remorse was so disarming that, for the life of me, I couldn't think of a single damned thing to say in my defense.
I tried — bless me, I did — but 20 years of activism, education, and insight just evaporated in the face of his pompous entitlement. I flailed blindly. I maybe got in a good one-liner or two — but when he asked me if I had Type I or Type II diabetes (not having diabetes at all was apparently not an option) and then proclaimed "Yet!" when I said I had neither, I utterly lost my cool. I reverted to my elementary school bully-defense tactics, called him a "Fuck" and told him to shut up.
"I don't think I will!" he sassed, and then continued to rant at the back of my head as I faced forward and sat down.
My friend across the aisle interceded and, based solely on a grudging white male mutual respect, Mr. Smug conceded the point that perception is subjective and even if he himself was OBVIOUSLY not being hateful, I (the witless fatty) may be perceiving his speech as such and thus he might consider toning it down a bit. After a few minutes more of indignant snorting and exclamations of "illogical!," the man and his wife changed topics.
I retreated into my iPhone, my hands shaking, my stomach sick with the conflict, doing my damnedest not to give him the satisfaction of tears. My partner helplessly patted my leg, my friend tried to calm me with cute dog videos, but I was gone — turned inward and busied with the work that those of us who face this kind of discrimination every day are far too familiar with — the work of not believing that we are intrinsically worthless.
And when the tears inevitably came, despite my best efforts, I was absolutely furious. Furious that I failed to defend myself, furious that some random man on a train was able to reduce me to tears, and furious that I couldn't find any compassion for myself about either.
It's been three days now since that blue-sweatered bully got off the train and I've been thinking about that interaction almost nonstop. As a 5'8", 350-pound woman with blue-streaked hair, and, as I'm told, a "big personality," I don't move through the world quietly. As such, I've gotten used to comments, stares, and even the occasional bit of physical violence. These days, it takes quite a bit to get me truly riled up in a way I can’t move past in a matter of minutes.
But this guy really got to me. And I want to talk about why.
What I felt most acutely while staring this angry man in the face was the full impact of the moral indefensibility of my position. This man and his wife were faultless on the surface, the pinnacle of upright, productive citizenship — thin, able-bodied, white, heterosexual, highly educated, in lauded professions — they were a picture-perfect representation of social privilege and wholesome family values. From that position, he was absolutely swaddled in an impenetrable armor of virtue. And from his lofty perch, I was not a thinking, feeling being; I was a moral wrong in need of a jolly good "righting."
As such, I was expected to rise to the occasion and engage in an emotionless, factually based argument about personal responsibility, the fiscal health of the medical system, scientific "fact" about weight and its causative relationship to disease, and ultimately provide either irrefutable proof against stereotype or a penitent admission of wrongdoing.
In truth, there are a dozen arguments I could have given to best him at his logic game and I tried my shaky hand at a few of them, but deep down I knew that none of that would have shifted him from his position because this isn’t a logical fight, it’s a moral one. And in situations like the one I was in, it most certainly isn’t a fair fight, either.
This is what thin privilege looks like. It looks like one person forcing an argument from an objective distance about a moral issue and another person arguing while embedded within a present-tense moment of abuse about their very right to exist in their own body. You can’t tie someone to a chair and hold a knife to their chest and then expect them to form a reasonable argument about why you shouldn’t plunge it in. And arguing that fat people should no longer have equal or affordable access to medical care at a time when we already experience employment discrimination and social stigma, are already being denied necessary medical treatment, when bias among medical and mental health professionals is so common and so well-documented that many fat people avoid preventative care and procrastinate necessary treatments — is doing exactly that.
More to the point, these myths about fatness masquerading as common sense, these "facts" this man spewed at me that function even within the medical industry, these deeply ableist neoliberal ideals of good and productive citizenship that fuel the moral outrage that dehumanizes fat individuals, they all neatly pull attention away from the deeper social injustices which create inequality and illness.
Fat exists across every intersecting oppression; race, class, ability, gender and gender presentation, age, sexuality. And you try explaining all of that to a red-faced, blue-sweatered bully on a train.
But this guy — this is the guy. And that’s what I felt in that moment. He is the Ultimate Average Joe, armed to the teeth with privilege, power, and piety. And when he came back at me on that train, I felt him like the full and violent impact of the brick wall I’m up against any time I head out into the world to do my bit to change the shape of the fat experience. Three days later, I still have that sickly knowledge in the pit of my stomach about exactly how much work I would have had to have done in that moment just to get this man to see me as a human being — not to get him to understand or agree with me, just to get him to slide down off his high horse enough to find the compassion and/or respect to actually listen to me.
And the burden of that work is an absolute impossibility to bear — it is an unreasonable expectation. I could not have done it in that moment, in that context. Perhaps if I trained for it — role-play and rote memorization of factoids and enough therapy to fix my reflexive internalization of other people’s hatred. But that’s definitely not how I want to spend my time.
That said, this is the guy, y’all. He’s the one we need to reach. He’s the one that needs to understand that stigma kills people. It makes us sick, silent, and afraid to advocate for ourselves. It isolates us, turns us against ourselves, and breaks down our mental health. The blue-sweatered train bullies of the world and their nurse wives and their doctor sons need to understand that social and economic privilege isolates you from compassion, that the closer you are to being what society deems as perfect, the more investment you will naturally have in maintaining the invisible injustices that protect and elevate you.
If you want to solve the problem of the high costs of ill-health, turn your righteous indignation to that. Look beyond common sense to the truth. Take all of that anger and attack institutionalized racism, classism, ableism, sexism, sizeism, homophobia, and transphobia. Build support systems instead of tearing down the people around you. Develop compassion. Pull all that upright, productive energy away from the structures that profit from injustice and give it to the people who are doing the work to fight it.
And if you’re not going to help, then, at the very least, get the hell off my train.